Eat Kosher!

In chutz la’aretz, this week parshas Shemini is read, which includes much of the Torah’s discussion regarding which species are kosher. Although in Eretz Yisroel this reading was last week, none of the material in this article is outdated.

Eat Kosher!

Question #1: What’s gnu?

Zoe Oligist asked me: “If the wildebeest chews its cud and has split hooves, which of the ten kosher animals is it?”

Question #2: Food for thought

“Am I required to eat each of the kosher species?”

Question #3:

“Is a tzvi a deer or an antelope? For that matter, what is the difference between a deer and an antelope?”

Question #4:

“Must I check a fish for scales each time I purchase one?”


The Torah discusses which species are kosher and which are not in two places, in parshas Shemini and in parshas Re’eih. In parshas Shemini, the Torah introduces the topic as follows: “Hashem spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, saying to them, ‘Speak to the children of Israel, saying, these are the living things from which you may eat. From the animals that are upon the ground: whichever has a split hoof that is separated completely and ruminates among the animals, those you may eat'” (Vayikra 11:1-3). The Torah then explains that species that possess only one of the two kosher signs are not to be eaten, such as the camel, which chews its cud and has a partially split hoof, but is not kosher, since its hoof is not fully separated (Vayikra 11:4). The Torah then provides the rules governing which sea creatures may be eaten. Following this, it lists which birds we may not eat, and then provides the rules regarding which grasshoppers are kosher and which are not.

Parshas Re’eih includes a review of most of the basic laws of kashrus, including a reiteration of which species of animal, fish and bird are kosher for the Jewish palate. The instructions regarding kosher grasshoppers do not appear in parshas Re’eih, but only in parshas Shemini. In parshas Re’eih, the Torah begins its discussion by listing the ten types of beheimah that are kosher, without mention of their kosher signs until later. To quote the Chumash (Devorim 14:4-5): Zos habeheimah asher tocheilu: shor, seh kesavim, veseh izim, ayil, utzvi, veyachmur, ve’ako, vedishon, use’o, vazamer, “these are the animals that you may eat.” The ten that are listed are the only species of mammal that ruminate and have totally split hooves, indicating that they are kosher.

What are these species? We can readily identify some of them: shor is cattle, kesavim are sheep, and izim are goats. However, from that point, the going gets more confusing, since it is unclear whether ayil is an antelope and tzvi is a deer, or vice versa (see Tosafos, Chullin 59b s.v. Veharei Tzvi). (The difference between antelope and deer is that antelope have permanent horns, whereas deer have antlers, which shed and regrow every year.)

What’s gnu?

At this point, let us address one of our original questions. “Zoe Oligist asked me: ‘If the wildebeest chews its cud and has split hooves, which of the ten kosher animals is it?’”

Although I have invented the name of the questioner, this exact query is, indeed, genuine, and was asked of Rav Yehoseif  Schwartz, a unique gadol and poseik of the early nineteenth century (Responsa Rosh Hashoni #18). Most modern Torah authorities would refrain from providing positive identification of the species mentioned in the Torah, other than the five mentioned above. (See, for example, the translation of Rav Hirsch to our verse.) However, Rav Schwartz concluded that yachmur is the wildebeest, also called a gnu, a variety of large antelope native to central and southern Africa. (Whether you refer to this antelope as wildebeest or gnu depends on whether you prefer to use a name whose linguistic origin is Afrikaans, a language that began as a dialect of seventeenth-century Dutch, or Bantu, a family of languages of the native peoples of south and central Africa. From what I understand, the gnu does not mind being called a wildebeest.) Rav Schwartz based his determination on the following: He writes that he had positively identified the other nine species mentioned by the Torah, and he also knew that the wildebeest, being a ruminant with split hooves, is kosher and not one of those nine. Since he did not know what a yachmur is, and he knew that the wildebeest is kosher, simple deductive logic proved that the wildebeest and the yachmur must be the same creature. (By the way, he cites there, authoritatively, Rav Saadiyah Gaon’s identifying the zamer as the giraffe. Although I have read articles claiming otherwise, giraffes chew their cud and have fully split hooves; thus, they are kosher.)

Personally, I have difficulty with Rabbi Schwartz’s method of identifying the yachmur. According to my primitive research, there are 91 species of antelope known to man, all of which are ruminants and have split hooves. There are also many species of deer, all of which are split-hooved ruminants, and a wide variety of species of sheep and goats. In addition, the entire bovine family, including Western domesticated cattle, Indian zebu cattle, musk oxen, Asian water buffalo, African cape buffalo, European bison (also called the wisent), American bison (colloquially, but somewhat inaccurately, referred to as buffalo), and Himalayan yaks are all ruminants and have split hooves. Clearly, since we have enumerated here many, many times the ten species listed by the Torah as kosher, the Torah must be providing us with categories of kosher animals, not specific species. Or, in more accurate words, the Torah’s categorization of species probably varies considerably from that of the zoologist. Therefore, those venturing on an African safari may consider the gnu to be kosher, without necessarily knowing under which of the seven chayos it is classed.

Food for thought

Let us return to the second of our opening questions: “Am I required to eat each of the kosher species?”

To analyze this question, we need two introductions. The first is to try to understand how to translate the Torah’s word tocheilu. This word can be translated into English as You should eat or as You are to eat or as You may eat. If we translate it You should eat or You are to eat, does this mean that there is a requirement to eat each of the kosher species? The midrash halacha on this pasuk, the Sifra, provides one way of understanding these words. There it states, “This teaches that Moshe held each living creature and showed it to the Bnei Yisroel, instructing them: ‘This tocheilu, and this you may not eat’ (Vayikra 11:2, #62 in the Malbim’s numbering).” I deliberately did not translate the word tocheilu here, so as not to bias our understanding of a later passage of Sifra, which I will mention shortly.

The Ramban, in his commentary to the Sefer Hamitzvos of the Rambam, writes that it cannot mean that the Torah requires that we eat these species. And he is not alone. All halachic authorities dating back more than a thousand years assume that the Torah is not commanding that we eat kosher species. The Ramban notes that it is a machlokes between the Behag, who does not count these four mitzvos, and the Rambam, who does. The Ramban explains that the Rambam understood that one who violates the lo sa’aseh by eating a non-kosher species also violates the aseih. On the other hand, the Behag does not count them because there is no positive mitzvah. The Ramban explains that just as a repeated mitzvah does not get counted twice, repeating it as an aseih does not add to the mitzvah count.

Is it a mitzvah?

There is a dispute among the rishonim whether the mitzvah of tocheilu is counted among the 613 mitzvos. The Rambam, both in his Sefer Hamitzvos (positive mitzvos 149), his work on the listing of the 613 mitzvos, and in the Mishneh Torah, counts tocheilu as one of the mitzvos (Hilchos Ma’achalos Asuros, introduction and 1:1). He counts not only this mitzvah, but also three other mitzvos aseih, one to identify kosher fish, another to identify kosher grasshoppers and a third to identify kosher birds (Rambam positive mitzvos 150-152). According to the Sefer Hachinuch, three of these mitzvos are first mentioned in parshas Shemini and therefore counted there, and the last, identifying kosher birds, is mentioned only in parshas Re’eih.

Actually, the Rambam has strong sources in Chazal for his position, since both the Sifra  (Vayikra 11:4, #69 in the Malbim’s numbering) and the Sifrei (Devorim 14:4, #96 in the Malbim’s numbering) state the following: “‘Osah tocheilu, this you may eat, but you may not eat non-kosher animals.’ This teaches me that this is prohibited because of a mitzvas aseih; how do I know that there is a lo sa’aseh? The Torah teaches, ‘The camel, the rabbit, the hyrax, and the pig – from their flesh you shall not eat.’ This includes only these four species; how do I know that I may not eat other non-kosher species? I derive it logically: If there is a lo sa’aseh prohibiting the consumption of the varieties that possess one indication that they are kosher, certainly those that do not possess either indication… are definitely not kosher.” In conclusion, all non-kosher varieties are prohibited directly from the Torah with a mitzvas aseih, and a lo sa’aseh, by virtue of a kal vachomer.

Notwithstanding the above quotation from the Sifra, most other early authorities who count the 613 mitzvos, including the Baal Halachos Gedolos, Rav Saadiya Gaon, and the Ramban, omit these four mitzvos, apparently because they feel that their inclusion as a positive mitzvah does not add any halachic factors.

In order to understand this dispute better, we need to explain some background to the counting of the 613 mitzvos.

The Sefer Hamitzvos includes the Rambam’s listing and explanation of the 613 mitzvos, but also includes an extensive explanation regarding the rules that govern what is included in their listing. The Rambam explains in his introduction to the Sefer Hamitzvos, that he was planning to write a halachic work that would include all the laws of the entire Torah, but realized that before he began writing this sefer halacha, he first needed to explain extensively what is included in the 613 mitzvos and why. (Indeed, the Rambam did write this work, which is the Mishneh Torah.)

Baal Halachos Gedolos

The Rambam mentions that the accepted counting of the 613 mitzvos, prior to his own Sefer Hamitzvos, was that of the Baal Halachos Gedolos, a halachic work authored by Rav Shimon Kaira in the era of the Geonim. (Although the Behag is often cited as the work of an earlier gaon, Rav Yehudai Gaon, since the Halachos Gedolos quotes Rav Yehudai Gaon many times, he obviously cannot be the author.) Subsequent to the Behag’s list, many other authors followed this list, while others amended it in minor ways. In addition, it spawned many liturgical poems. However, it appears that until the Rambam penned his Sefer Hamitzvos, no one disputed the basic approach that the Behag used to determine what counts as a mitzvah.

Why the Sefer Hamitzvos?

The Rambam writes that he realized that if he listed the mitzvos before each section of his Mishneh Torah according to his own list, he would be disputing an accepted approach to Judaism. Thus, he was in a quandary. On the one hand, his Mishneh Torah would be incomplete without listing the mitzvos involved in each of its sections; on the other hand, people might reject his list of mitzvos, unless he explained its rules and why he disputed what had been, heretofore, accepted. For this reason, the Rambam explains, he wrote the entire Sefer Hamitzvos as an introduction to his Mishneh Torah, in order to explain the rules that determine what counts as a mitzvah and what does not.

What difference does it make whether something is a mitzvah or not?

Although many authors discuss what to include in the count of the 613 mitzvos, it is interesting to note that few of them discuss why it is important to know what are the 613 mitzvos.

On the other hand, the Rambam contends that it is essential to a proper perception of Torah to understand the relationship between the halachos of the Torah and the 613 mitzvos. As part of this understanding, the Rambam describes that he decided to structure the Mishneh Torah according to related mitzvah topics, rather than follow the order of the Mishnah. The Rambam then mentions that he decided to precede each section of the Mishneh Torah with an introduction, in which he would list the mitzvos included in that section.

But does it count?

How does this debate affect kashrus? What we have quoted, until now, appears to be a rather theoretical discussion. How does this affect what I eat? To explain this, we need to examine one of the points that the Rambam makes in his Sefer Hamitzvos.

We will continue this article in two weeks.